Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Reviews

By Al Hutchison

In the minds of those who enjoy reading, either for relaxation or self-improvement of one kind or another, books make excellent Christmas gifts.  It helps to know what kind of books a person likes, of course, because a devotee of science fiction may not fully appreciating finding even a superior a cookbook under the Christmas tree.

  Here are three recommendations, based on my own reading this past year:

1.  The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, by Alec Wilkinson. This slim volume, which costs $22.95, captures the essence of one of the more enduring but controversial figures of the 20th century music scene in the United States.  Why was Seeger so controversial?  Because he believed – in his 90s, he still believes – in  the values we are taught to cherish in these United States and he sang about his beliefs to anyone who’d listen, including members of the Communist Party.  During the McCarthy Era, he famously offered to sing for the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he refused to answer the red-baiting politicians’ questions.

“He believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  His interpretation of them is literal,” Wilkinson writes.  His causes included workers’ rights, civil rights, the movement against the Vietnam war and the ecological movement.  Almost single-handedly, he was responsible for the cleaning up of his beloved Hudson River

  “People ask, is there one word that you have more faith in than any other word,” Seeger told Wilkinson, “and I’d say it’s participation. I feel this takes on so many meanings.  The composer John Philip Sousa said ‘What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented? Women used to sing lullabies to their children.’ It’s been my life’s work to get participation, whether it’s a union song, or a peace song, civil rights, or a women’s movement, or gay liberation.  When you sing, you feel a kind of strength; you think, I’m not alone, there’s a whole bunch of us who feel this way.

For most of us, Seeger’s greatest contribution has been his music itself.  Read this book and you’ll want to sit down and listen to it for a few hours.  And you’ll want to do good, somehow, in your own way.

        You may not care about goats, but this book is a keeper. The author,    who lives on a 75-acre Vermont farm, takes his subjects – raising goats and making cheese from their milk – extremely seriously, and his writing skills could keep his readers happy on almost any topic.  

  Kessler, an experienced writer for New Yorker and other publications, respects his readers as much as he respects his goats and, ultimately, his homemade cheeses that the experts he consults proclaim them a smashing success.  That respect courses through a book that reflects the writer’s love not only of his expanding herd of goats but also of poetry, history and even religion.

   Did you know that in Sweden the goat herders were typically women, and that they sang while they looked after their goats?  On a quiz, could you explain the origins of the terms “scapegoat” and “bellwether”?  Read this book and you’ll ace the test.

  To read “Goat Song” is to learn that goats are among the most intelligent of farm animals. Compared to them, cows and sheep seem downright boring and dull-witted, although Kessler probably could make them seem exciting.

  “The longer I spent with our goats, the more complex and wondrous their emotional life seemed: their moods, desires, sensitivity, intelligence, attachments to place and one another, and us,” Kessler writes. “But also the way they communicated messages with their bodies, voices, and eyes in ways I can’t try to translate: their goat song.”

  3. In Late Winter We Ate Pears: A Year of Hunger and Love, by Deidre Heekin and Caleb Barber.  $25.

  Tucked into a tiny upstairs space in a cozy corner of tourist-friendly Woodstock, Vermont, is a rather unusual eating and drinking (wine) establishment called Osteria Pane e Salute.  It seats only 22 customers, serves its own bakery products and, given the owners’ penchant for travel, is as likely to be closed as open.

The owners are Caleb Barber and his wife, Deirde Heekin, and if they team up in their restaurant as smoothly and lovingly as they do in this book, then Vermont is blessed with two tremendous talents who are happy to share their success with their customers and with those fortunate enough to read this book and its companion volume (written by Heekin), “Libation: A Bitter Alchemy.”

  First, an explanation is in order: In an Italian tradition that’s no longer religiously observed, there were three levels of public dining. Of these, the most formal was a “ristorante” that typically would have linen tablecloths and other fancy touches. Next there’s the somewhat less elegant “trattoria” and, finally, the most casual “osteria.”  In Italian, by the way, “pane e salute” translates into “bread and health.” 

“Our restaurant has become a way to preserve not only part of our past, but a larger historical past that is still important to the present: Italy,” Barber, the chef in the family, explains. “So much of the western world can be illuminated and explained by what you will find in Italy, especially when it comes to art.”

And that’s where Heekin and Barber found the inspiration and the instructions that feed their restaurant’s menu. This is a couple that clearly is in love with Italy, where they frequently have gone to live (they once stayed an entire year) and to enthusiastically absorb the nation’s varied culinary history. They also love Vermont, where you seldom expect to encounter top-of-the-line cuisine at moderate prices.  The owners want their customers to be able to afford what they serve, so their prices are always within reach.

Heekin, a gifted writer who is blessed with the intellectual curiosity of a scholar or poet, provides the fast-moving narrative while Barber contributes intriguing recipes in a book that is neither travelogue nor cookbook yet a felicitous combination of both. This is a book to keep near the kitchen, yet it also makes for fine reading in an easy chair by a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night.

  Readers who already know and love Italy will be pleased to read Heekin’s descriptions of the couple’s travels through the rural countryside in search of authentic recipes and the peculiarly personal histories behind them. Those who have never had pleasure of spending time in an Italian village (or, even better, a trattoria or osteria) may feel they can skip around a bit without diminishing the rewards that come to the appreciative reader.

  What comes through, strong and clear, is the couple’s enduring affection for their chosen lifestyle and it’s contribution to their community.

“I think about Caleb working each day on a minimum of sleep, baking, cooking, paying bills, fixing a dripping faucet in the sink or an oven that’s gone on the blink,” Heekin writes. “I think about how late we stay up on Thursday nights planning the new dinner menu for every Friday, and I know why we do this.

  “We do this for Roberto at the Window Table, for Olga, who is a stranger in an unfamiliar land, for the Turkish man, the French woman, and all the other faces we see and to whom we smile and say, Good day,” she explains.

  Oddly enough, the college-educated authors had dreamed of becoming professional dancers but their love of Italy and of Italian cuisine got in their way. Their book expresses, in somewhat sensual terms, their love affair with their chosen careers.  And if you think you know your pizza, think again.  As told by Heekin, the history of that popular dish is an intriguing one most of us know almost nothing about.
  The book’s 80 recipes are separated by season and while Barber’s writing is somewhat less poetic than Heekin’s, it is a pleasure to read. More important, his recipes are simple, straightforward and a clear invitation, even an inducement, to chefs, amateur or otherwise, to get cooking.

   “We believe cooking is an art form like any other: you learn the techniques, you learn what those techniques feel like, and then you learn by intuition, instinct, repetition, and your senses,” Barber writes.

  Finally, a note about the title: It comes not from Italy but from Quebec City and it alludes to a recipe in danger of disappearing.  Leave it to Heekin and Barber to keep it alive.

  (The above review first was published in The Rutland Herald and The Times Argus of Barre, Vt.)
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